PITTSFORD, N.Y.: Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship when he least expected it, matching a tournament record last year at Southern Hills when he rallied from seven shots behind in the final round and won in a playoff.
Now he’s not sure what to expect.
That was his only win in the last two years, dating to The Players Championship in 2021. He has fallen out of the top 10 in the world for the first time in nearly six years.
It’s not as though he has vanished from the elite in golf. Thomas, who turned 30 last month, is still at No. 13 and still very much a threat to win wherever he plays. It’s just he hasn’t felt like that very often over the last year, and he went through some stretches where he showed up at a tournament and wasn’t sure he could win.
“How I described it for a couple months is I’ve never felt so far and so close at the same time,” he said Monday at Oak Hill after playing 18 holes on a pleasant spring day. “That’s a very hard thing to explain, and it’s also a very hard way to try to compete and win a golf tournament.
“That’s how you get out of it, just playing your way out of it and hitting the shots when you want to and making those putts when you need to, and then your confidence builds back up, and next thing you know, you don’t even remember what you were thinking in those times.”
Oak Hill looks certain to present as strong a test as Southern Hills was a year ago. Both classic courses had gone through restorations since previously hosting a PGA Championship, and so in some respects, it’s new for all 156 players in the field.
Thomas hasn’t had the results — only four top 10s since winning the PGA Championship, only one serious chance of winning at the Canadian Open last June — but he is seeing improvement.
His last start was the Wells Fargo Championship, where he didn’t feel he had much going for him except for reasonable scoring.
“I felt like in Charlotte, I really turned a little bit of a corner of scoring better,” he said.
Oak Hill last hosted the PGA Championship in 2013 — Thomas was still at Alabama, getting ready to turn pro. The restoration work by Andrew Green presents a tree-lined course with Allen’s Creek meandering through it, sharps edges on the greens the way famed architect Donald Ross intended it.
There’s also plenty of thick grass to the relief of the PGA of America, which hoped for the kind of weather that would allow for growth in the turf and in the trees, and that’s what it got.
Thomas arrived on Sunday and walked 18 holes to chip and putt. He played with Max Homa on Monday and got the full experience.
“It’s everything that I’d heard about. It’s a tough test,” Thomas said. “I felt like I had a lot of lies chipping and hitting irons that I had a pretty good idea how it was going to come out, and I didn’t. So I think that’s going to be something that a lot of people will have to guess correctly or adjust as the week goes on.”
Jordan Spieth, meanwhile, had yet to arrive but was planning on it. He suffered a left wrist injury that kept him out of his hometown AT&T Byron Nelson last week. Spieth said in a text message he hit balls the last few days and would plan on flying up later Monday.
Still to be determined is how his wrist will react to certain lies, particularly in thick grass. He needs only the PGA Championship to complete the career Grand Slam.
The race for No. 1 in the world is up for grabs again. Scottie Scheffler had a chance to return to the top spot in the ranking by winning the Byron Nelson — he finished three shots behind Jason Day, a former PGA champion and world No. 1 who is back in form.
Masters champion Jon Rahm remains No. 1; only Scheffler can catch him this week.
For some players, more than a Wanamaker Trophy is at stake this week. The top 60 in the world after the PGA Championship are exempt from qualifying for the US Open. Among those on the bubble is Talor Gooch, who has won two of the last three LIV Golf events. Gooch is at No. 63 in the world.
Thomas is more concerned about getting results, and that starts with momentum — a shot here, a putt there and he could be on his way. The hard part is staying patient.
“After a couple of months or six months, whatever it is, where you’re not performing as well as you feel like you should and not having the finishes you feel like you should or not winning tournaments like you feel like you should, it’s pretty easy to get (ticked) off,” he said.
“How you learn is failure and negatives,” he said. “And I feel like I’ve had a great opportunity for a lot of learning the past whatever — six months, couple months, this year.”
DIVOTS: John Daly is the latest former PGA champion to withdraw. Daly was replaced in the field by Stephan Jaeger.